Impressions on Collection Development Policies and Practice

by Mat Darby

In 2017, the Best Practices Subcommittee of the Acquisitions and Appraisal Section conducted a survey of archivists on the topic of collection development and acquisition policies. During this process, we also received examples of these policies from archivists at a variety of institution types who were willing to share them. As we continue to consider and evaluate these policies and survey results, we felt it would be helpful to provide some of our initial impressions about what we found.

First, the need to establish and maintain collection development policies seems not to be viewed universally as an essential part of archival practice. Many archivists believe because they already know what they and, by extension, their institutions collect, that this institutional knowledge should be sufficient. Further, some archivists believe the creation of a concrete policy could place overly rigid boundaries on the scope of their collecting.

For institutions with collecting policies already in place, it is not always clear for whom the policy is written. Is the document detailed enough to be used by archivists to guide collection development? Is the policy clear and free enough of jargon to assist potential donors? Further, does the policy help to explain and justify collecting for administrators, resource allocators, and board members?

In some institutions, the collecting policy is an internal document and perhaps one that is not widely known about or shared among staff. Publicly sharing even an abridged version of a collection policy, one that may not be as dense or granular as an internal version, can provide useful information to prospective donors. All staff, even those without direct acquisition responsibilities, should be aware of the scope of collecting activities.

We also recognized a sense of powerlessness or lack of control on the part of some of the archivists responding. Beyond just the policies themselves, a need exists within the profession for guidelines that archivists can use to bolster their own arguments to directors and administrators as to why a policy is needed, why it should be periodically reviewed and updated, and why it should be available to the public.

Overall, these issues contribute to a lack of transparency on the part of many collecting entities. Clearer, more readily available policies could improve donor relations; promote collaboration, and cooperation among institutions with similar collecting strengths; and produce more informed and engaged staff.

Despite some of the issues that appeared in the survey results, the more robust policies we examined addressed all or some of these concerns in the following ways:

  • Clearly states the mission, guiding principles, and philosophy of the institution – why you collect what you collect
  • Transparency: policies share the criteria and processes that go into making acquisition decisions, including deaccessioning
  • Identifies the person/committee/etc. within an organization that makes acquisitions decisions
  • Indicates the point person(s) within the organization for potential donors to contact
  • Acknowledges legacy collecting while focusing on current collecting goals and priorities
  • Identifies strengths but emphasizes gaps where work is needed
  • States directly what the repository does not collect
  • Outlines the considerations and criteria at play when making acquisition decisions: content, accessibility, quality of documentation, physical condition, cost-benefit analysis, etc.
  • Includes a statement regarding collaboration and/or non-competitive relationship with other repositories
  • Shows commitment to assisting donors in finding the right home for their materials, even if that is another repository

As the work of the Best Practices Subcommittee progresses, we will provide further analysis of our survey results with a goal of assisting archivists in improving collection development policies and practice.

The 2017 survey results are compiled in a report located here. Please join us in a twitter chat on April 19, 2018 to further the discussion about these issues and concepts with fellow A&A section members.


Collecting Practices at the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives

Raegan Swanson is the Executive Director at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) located in Toronto, Ontario. Her professional background includes Library and Archives Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, and Archival Advisor for the Council of Archives New Brunswick. Raegan is also currently earning her PhD on the topic of community archives in Aboriginal and Inuit communities.

This interview was conducted in the spring of 2017 by current A&A Steering Committee member Kira Baker.



Can you tell us about the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) and how the archives began?

The CLGA was founded in Toronto in 1973 and was formed out of The Body Politic, which was a magazine publication that came out of the gay liberation movement in Canada. While the group collected photographs and did writing for the magazine they realised that they had the start of an archives. It was basically just a filing cabinet in the main office, and it started with material from that era. What happened however, was there was a police raid so they decided that, for the protection of the collection and so the police would not be able to take any more boxes, they would become a charity and in 1981 they formally became the Canadian Gay Archives (there have been a few name variations over the years). The collection grew from there, it started out being Toronto-centric but it quickly became more than just Toronto and people from across Canada started donating material. We’ve never been a traditional archive and we have a very large object collection that has always been considered an archival collection: we’ve got a t-shirt collection, a matchbook collection, button pin collections, various types of costume and clothing, lots of photographs, all kinds of AV material everything from reel-to-reel to born digital, art, as well as a reference library. Most of the material dates from the 1970s onward, there are exceptions though, we have one journal in particular that is probably our oldest item, dated from about 1911.

You came to the archives in 2016 as Executive Director, please share with us your professional background and describe your role here at CLGA

I was a history student at College université de Saint-Boniface in Manitoba and it was actually Terry Cook and Tom Nesmith who convinced me to be an archivist. One day they pulled a few of us out of class and talked with us about how we would could make good archivists. I graduated from the University of Toronto’s iSchool in 2011 and I was fortunate to get a position at Library and Archives Canada right out of school. It was mostly a co-op role but it allowed me to transition into a federal position and I became the digital archivist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [on Canada’s former residential school system for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth] where I was responsible for the statements given by survivors, former staff, and intergenerational survivors as well as the members of the general public that were made through the TRC. After that position I moved into Northern Quebec and lived in Oujé-Bougoumou, which is a Cree village of around 500 people and I lived up there for a couple of years, starting the archives from the ground up – building shelving, created policy and so on. After that I did a brief stint as the Archival Advisor for the provincial Council of Archives New Brunswick. So it has been a roundabout way to get back to the CLGA because I was a student volunteer here in 2010-2011!

What have you been doing here the last 6 months as Executive Director?

Acclimating. Figuring out where things stand. Rebecka Sheffield, our last Executive Director, was here for a short period and she was the first archivist to be hired. Before that, the Executive Director role was someone who managed the house, paid the bills, helped with fundraising. So there are a lot of policies and procedures that need to be updated, some of which hasn’t been touched since the 1990s, everything from updating the reading room rules to writing an HR policy because now we actually have more than one staff member. So far my work has mostly been administrative although I try to sneak in some archival activities too. A lot has changed over time for the CLGA, but there are volunteers who have been here throughout that time, so, for me, [the last six months] has been understanding what has been done, who usually does what, and finding my role among the volunteers because they have been the ones who have kept this place going over the past 40 plus years.


Records held at the CLGA house

What are the collecting practices of the CLGA? How have they changed over those 40 years?

We have more space now which means that we are able to take more material. We only moved into this space (at 34 Isabella Street) in 2009. Previously, the archives had been in rented office space which doesn’t provide many options for storage and reading room configuration. Before, everything was one large space and researchers were looking at records right next to the stacks. So things have changed in a couple of ways: 1) more people know about us and we are getting more material, in part too because of the longevity of the CLGA, and 2) I would say the collection practices has expanded from the initial 1970s activism roots to showing and representing gay life as it exists in Canada. For example, material first collected included The Body Politic and the Right to Privacy Committee and other entities rallying around the cause [of gay rights], and we have tons of material related to the bathhouse raids because it was a pivotal moment in Toronto. Additionally, we now also have more material on marriage, and we recently acquired records from the LGBTQ Parenting Network which dealt with families and adoption. So how the transition in society has changed as has also changed the types of record materials coming in.

And so, records came to the archives through word of mouth?

Yes. Folks already a part of the magazine [The Body Politic] and other groups were also the volunteers at the archives and it was their records and the records of their friends who were the main donors. The community was initially very small, even though Toronto, having one of the largest queer communities in Canada so there were plenty of people in the general LGBT+ community – but it wasn’t necessarily that the CLGA was taking in all the records, we were getting what we could manage at the time. There has not been much effort to seek out and ask people for their records and that has kind of been a continued practice overall. Materials were donated when volunteers specifically asked someone to do so or they had heard of the CLGA by word of mouth…unless you knew somebody, or knew somebody who knew somebody, that was how records were acquired.

Space is another factor and has always been what we could afford. The CLGA often shared space with other groups and there were years when we couldn’t afford office space at all. Working with what you have limits what record collections come in, the volunteers to manage those records, and accommodating researchers. The CLGA has grown substantially since moving into this current space, which also saw the number of volunteers go up. We now have a full-time Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator which has meant double the number of volunteers. It is interesting to see how the body of volunteers has shaped the organization as well as the collections.

Describe the administrative structure of CLGA and how this corresponds to day to day decision making

There is an Operations Committee that is responsible for the archival side of running the CLGA: looking after acquisitions, appraisal, arrangement and descriptions, ordering supplies etc. This Committee used to be the CLGA’s main hub but there is currently also a Board of Directors and ten other Committees for fundraising, curatorial projects, communications and other jobs all made up of volunteers. To clarify, those on the Operations Committee carrying out archival tasks, it’s not to say that those volunteers do not have archival training – they just have never been paid CLGA archival staff. For instance, one volunteer is an archivist at the University of Toronto who has been contributing his expertise to the Operations Committee for the last 39 years.


Raegan showing an album from the Rupert Raj collection

Tell us about the recent Diversity Survey put out by the CLGA and the reasons behind going to members for feedback

The Diversity Survey project started around 2015-2016, the impetus in part being from having more volunteers coming in to work with the archival collections but not seeing themselves represented here as part of the local community and, in turn, the CLGA realizing the limitations of what we haven’t been able to collect. One example of this is that, there were women involved in the creation of the CLGA, but most of our older volunteers are men. There was also some trans material collected, but whether or not it is representative of a larger trans community – well, we are actively working towards incorporating those record collections now. I think the CLGA will be examining the organization’s vision, mandate, and even our name over the next year while we are in the middle of strategic planning. From what our volunteers and the community has told us [through the Diversity Survey], we have not been as diverse in our collecting as we need to be.

The Diversity Survey showed us a lot about our organization. Survey results made clear that men thought we handled diversity better than women respondents – and I think that says a lot. What you know and what you care about will affect how and what you choose to collect. The CLGA was an organization primarily started by cis gay white men, thus impacting what material was collected. Not to say that CLGA wasn’t collecting other community information at all, but it definitely impacted how much material from those communities ended up at the CLGA. For example, you could be aware “X” event was happening but if you didn’t attend then you might not be able to pick up a poster from that event. So, you are limited by individual personal experiences and that is something we can see in the collection. There is a certain amount of privilege that comes with being a man, even a gay man, and having conversations about privilege are not easy, especially when it is with people who have been discriminated against. Trying to balance the progressive nature of a changing community without discounting the work done by past activists is difficult.

Right now, the CLGA team is on board with addressing that there are gaps in the collection and tackling how we are going to handle it. To me, unless people understand that we are going to respect their records and that we are a safe place to put them, then they are in the right to not be willing to place their records in our custody. We are actively trying to ensure we both collect diverse materials and promote their accessibility. I am currently processing a collection of Rupert Raj, a trans writer and activist. These records had been accessioned, but, you must show that it matters with arrange and describe. We will soon start highlighting this and other trans collections through our online platform. We are a very large group of LGBTQ2+ and allies who have come together to formulate and care for the archives, keep the organization running, and make the material available to the public.



A large portrait painting from the CLGA collection

What collections would you like to see, or, what is on your wish list?

Oh, we do have a list! Organizations, people, clubs, as well as books for our reference library. Working with other organizations in the local community is important, especially since sometimes distinct groups or projects can have short lifespans. We want to make sure that we can gather those records before those groups might be swallowed up by larger organizations.

We also have records of artists, playwrights, and musicians showing the arts. I like the way that art tends to play so directly into activism and I would like more of that especially since it is such a great visual and way of representing challenges and plays into our curatorial initiatives as well. We’ve also started collecting material that has been inspired by our collection. Artists have come in to do research and then they have created artwork based on our records. There is art upstairs that is copies of our archival collection – it has been turned into wallpaper.

Now, is that a record or art?

We kept pieces [of the wallpaper] as records! But it’s on our walls too. Not at all meta, right?

It’s interesting to see how people are interacting and using the material because I think it will also influence what we collect. The types of researchers coming in aren’t all academic, there is a lot of artistic investigation. Last year, there was a play about the Body Politic and because we also rent some of our building space, Sky Gilbert, the playwright, was doing rehearsals on our third floor. Because we are a community space, the way people interact with the Archives, what kinds of relationships and what is generated here at CLGA will also influence the archival materials that come to stay.


Recap: Third Thursday and Collecting Women’s March Materials and Women’s Collections in Archives

A summary recap of November’s Third Thursday chat on Twitter is now up on the A&A’s Storify page.  Read through to check out what was brought up during our conversation on collecting materials from the Women’s March and women’s collections in archives.

Thanks to SAA’s Women Archivists and Women’s Collections Sections for teaming up!

November Twitter Chat: Collecting Women’s March Materials and Women’s Collections in Archives

We are pleased to announce we will be co-hosting a joint Twitter chat with the SAA Women’s Archivists and the Women’s Collections sections about collecting Women’s March materials and women’s collections in archives.

Follow #AppraiseThis or the Section handles @AppraisalSAA @WomenArchivists

Thursday, November 16th – 4:00 pm Pacific/ 5:00 Mountain/ 6:00 Central/ 7:00 Eastern

Questions we’ll be asking are:

  1. @WomenArchivists connected archivists participating in the Women’s Marches across the country and formed the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project. How has the development of appraisal policy for this collective Project differed from working within an institutional environment? What are some of the challenges & positives to working this way?
  2. Where have materials ended up and how were the collecting organizations involved in the process? Did they have certain acquisition requirements? For chat participants w/ workplace experiences collecting March materials, what were the considerations of staff?
  3. What was your approach to appraisal over materials from this large-scale, public protest event? Eg. kinds of records, objects, and ephemera?  A sampling? etc.
  4. How do you handle copyright/permissions when collecting material from a group event?
  5. What were legal or ethical concerns that came up during the appraisal process for these collections? Did they vary across institutions.
  6. Have efforts to collect Women’s March materials led to changes at your workplace re: acquisition and appraisal practices?
  7. Where is the Project at now, 10 months after the March? Or any last thoughts from others to share?

We hope you’ll tune in and tweet along to add to the conversation!



Appraisal & Acquisition Bibliography Project

The Acquisitions & Appraisal Section is developing a bibliography on appraisal and acquisition. This shared resource is intended to support archivists and other information professionals conducting research on appraisal, those interested in learning more about specific appraisal theories, and anyone looking for case studies about implementing appraisal and acquisitions strategies in specific contexts. The Acquisitions & Appraisal Section steering committee intends for this project to be iterative and encourages members to contribute and help this bibliography grow into a richer resource over time. Use of the SAA Acquisitions & Appraisal Section Bibliography is free and available in a Zotero Group Library. The bibliography is available here on Zotero.

The Zotero bibliography is an open group that anyone can join and add to. As this is a work in progress, please help the Acquisitions & Appraisal Section steering committee grow a more robust resource over time! Some guidelines for adding items to this Zotero bibliography are available here:

Please don’t hesitate to send us feedback on the bibliography and how we can continue to improve it:


Recap: Third Thursday & Faculty Papers

A summary recap of last week’s Third Thursday chat on Twitter is now up on the A&A’s Storify page.  Read through to check out what was brought up during our conversation on appraising faculty papers.

Thanks to the College & University Archives Section crew for teaming up!


Voting Open until July 10

Dear A&A Membership:

Cast your ballot for the 2017 Section Elections to help determine the next intake of A&A Section Committee members. We have positions open for the Vice Chair/Chair Elect (1) and Steering Committee (2).

Ballots should now have been received by email.

Information on each candidate is posted on our microsite & is also made available through the link to vote!

Voting closes Monday, July 10th